Most peo­ple ac­tu­ally agree with so­cial jus­tice, they just don’t like its lan­guage

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS - DOUG SAUN­DERS

The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple like the con­cept of so­cial jus­tice, they just don’t like the lan­guage that goes with it

Are you a so­cial-jus­tice war­rior? Not if you can help it, I bet. You are un­likely to find any­one who will self-iden­tify as an “SJW,” an an­noy­ingly pop­u­lar in­ter­net put­down aimed by an­gry trolls at the earnest slo­gans of left­lean­ing peo­ple.

In re­sponse to such scorn, peo­ple have dropped the words “so­cial jus­tice.” Lib­eral-minded politi­cians now stu­diously avoid the phrase. This de­spite the fact that a large and grow­ing ma­jor­ity of peo­ple be­lieve in, well, so­cial jus­tice.

The idea has di­vorced it­self from the words. So­cial jus­tice, the con­cept – broad equal­ity and op­po­si­tion to un­fair dis­crim­i­na­tion – is more pop­u­lar than ever. But “so­cial jus­tice,” the phrase, has be­come hotly con­tested and, to many, off-putting and doc­tri­naire. It joins such po­lar­iz­ing for­mu­la­tions as“sys­temic racism” and“Is­lam­o­pho­bia” – terms that in­spire dis­taste among big seg­ments of a pub­lic who oth­er­wise sup­port the con­cepts be­hind those phrases.

And that’s led to a mis­con­cep­tion. The long-run­ning fight over lan­guage – in which the words and phrases of the ide­o­log­i­cally earnest are rejected as “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” – is be­ing mis­taken for some larger and more ir­rec­on­cil­able bat­tle over un­der­ly­ing ideas and be­liefs.

Those who are truly in­tol­er­ant and op­posed to plu­ral­ism – those who think so­cial jus­tice is not just an awk­ward phrase but a bad idea – are a small and de­clin­ing group. But that group is ma­nip­u­lat­ing lan­guage con­flicts to their po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage.

That has be­come vividly ev­i­dent as a new study of po­lit­i­cal trib­al­ism has in­spired a be­wil­der­ing range of re­ac­tions from schol­ars and jour­nal­ists. The study, ti­tled Hid­den Tribes, ex­am­ines 8,000 U.S. cit­i­zens from a wide range of back­grounds in lengthy sur­veys and fo­cus-group dis­cus­sions. The aim of the study (and of the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­hind it, More in Com­mon) is to show how coun­tries have be­come di­vided into mul­ti­ple tribal fac­tions.

But the study doesn’ t re­ally end up show­ing that. For the most part, it shows that there are ex­actly two fact ions: a large, in­creas­ingly united ma­jor­ity rang­ing from the left to the cen­tre-right who be­lieve in so­cial jus­tice and its sis­ter con­cepts, and a small group, mak­ing up 25 per cent of Amer­i­cans on the de­vout ide­o­log­i­cal right (cer­tainly smaller in other English­s­peak­ing coun­tries) who op­pose those ideas com­pletely.

There is, how­ever, an­other di­vide vis­i­ble – one around lan­guage. Last month, the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Yascha Mounk an­a­lyzed one of the study’s sec­ondary find­ings in an es­say car­ry­ing the head­line “Amer­i­cans strongly dis­like PC cul­ture.” In­deed, 80 per cent of Amer­i­cans agree that “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is a prob­lem in our coun­try,” and that in­cludes al­most all ages and back­grounds. Only 6 per cent sup­port “PC cul­ture” and that group is mostly wealthy and white.

But the “PC cul­ture” they’re op­pos­ing is not re­ally a cul­ture at all; it’s just the lan­guage. And it’s a nar­row gripe: An even larger ma­jor­ity – 82 per cent – think hate speech is an equally big prob­lem.

In­deed, what jumps out from the study is that the peo­ple who are against PC lan­guage are also over­whelm­ingly in favour of the broad ideas be­hind that lan­guage.

A ma­jor­ity of all Amer­i­cans, and a re­ally big ma­jor­ity who aren’t de­voted con­ser­va­tives, be­lieve that “white peo­ple to­day don’t rec­og­nize the real ad­van­tages they have” – but most peo­ple say they dis­like the pop­u­lar mil­len­nial name for this thought, “white priv­i­lege.” A sim­i­larly sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity feel that “many peo­ple nowa­days don’t take dis­crim­i­na­tion against Mus­lims se­ri­ously enough” – but most op­pose the word “Is­lam­o­pho­bia.” Most Amer­i­cans be­lieve “the po­lice are of­ten more vi­o­lent to­ward African Amer­i­cans than oth­ers,” but when you char­ac­ter­ize this view as Black Lives Mat­ter, sud­denly six in 10 are op­posed.

Six in 10 Amer­i­cans be­lieve that same-sex mar­riage should be le- gal, in­clud­ing ma­jori­ties in most con­ser­va­tive camps. A sim­i­lar pro­por­tion be­lieve that “ac­cept­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple is the mo­ral thing to do.” And 69 per cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve sex­ism to­day is “very se­ri­ous or some­what se­ri­ous.”

That ma­jor­ity might not like the phrases used by gay- and trans­gen­der-rights ac­tivists and fem­i­nists, or even words such as “fem­i­nist,” but the un­der­ly­ing ideas have wide sup­port.

How­ever, peo­ple tend to vote based not on big ideas but on words – and the 25 per cent who ar­dently op­pose the ideas of equal­ity and plu­ral­ism are win­ning wider elec­tion vic­to­ries, in the United States and else­where, by go­ing af­ter the words. The rise of Trump­ism was pro­pelled by man­u­fac­tured out­rage about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness run amok. This week saw U.S. ma­jori­ties back bal­lot mea­sures sup­port­ing trans­gen­der rights and black en­fran­chise­ment; they also voted for plenty of “anti-PC” can­di­dates.

There is no “PC cul­ture,” just words that be­come tar­gets. If we want to win so­cial jus­tice, we might need to lose “so­cial jus­tice.”

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